The Arc of Writing History: Building Bridges from the Periphery to the Center
Anthony T. Grafton, September 2011
It's spring, late April, and I am having trouble focusing on work as New Jersey briefly turns into a floral wonderland. But the classes I am sitting in on at my own university during the last week of the semester are well run, the students are engaged, and the group of historians whom I am meeting and watching at work are committed to a challenging enterprise.
One of the classes meets in a bright new room, and deals with the dark subject of the Inquisition in early modern Europe—a field with a mature, not to say overgrown, historiography, marked by complex debates about culture, causality, and gender. The students, all freshmen, discuss a wide range of historical questions in lucid and articulate ways. Each of them is working on a term paper to be based on primary sources, and their brief oral presentations of their projects would do credit to members of a more advanced class.
I'm struck by the confidence that seems to rule in the room: the students seem well provided with facts, but also ready to expose their interests and ideas to one another for criticism. The instructor, a veteran of some years in the classroom, runs the hour smoothly, moving from individual presentations to group discussion to examination of a particular text without losing steam. It's a fine history class—though it's not sponsored by my department and wouldn't count towards a history major's quota of courses.
At Princeton, as at most universities, early career historians hold positions of many kinds. Several—the largest single group—serve in the Department of History, as assistant professors or, in a few cases, as lecturers. Others win fellowships and spend one or more years on one of the many islands in the university's archipelago of centers in humanities and social science, such as the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts or the Program in Law and Public Affairs. But the members of the biggest group—some seven of them, at the moment—work for the university's Writing Program, which I am visiting.
More than 30 scholars in a wide variety of fields work in this program, on terms that can last up to five years. With its own director, supervised by the office of the Dean of the College, it provides courses in expository writing, based in a wide variety of subjects that every Princeton undergraduate is required to take. Its offices—each shared by two occupants—and seminar rooms are located not in one of the main academic buildings of the university but in the university's newest residential college, a massive gothic fantasy completed only a few years ago.
The historians who teach in this program are selected, as are their colleagues in other disciplines, from a very large field of applicants. Active writers themselves—a number of them have already published articles or books, and one book by a departing member of the group was reviewed and discussed around the world—they hope to find careers teaching in history departments. If they succeed, like all professors of history, they will continue to teach writing, some of them at every level from assigning short papers to freshmen to working with doctoral candidates and editing their own book series.
In the past, most of us came to this task—as I did, many years ago—with no formal qualifications and little or no formal instruction. By contrast, these historians have gone through a training boot-camp, which provides them with a set of techniques and analytical terms that they and their students use. The categories seem eminently sensible: again and again, for example, I heard both the instructors and their students draw a careful and useful distinction between the thesis of a piece of writing and the motive that leads the author to write in the first place—a distinction that, had we learned about it years ago, could have saved me and many others a good bit of intellectual trouble. Watching students in the class on the Inquisition read the preface of a much-discussed recent microhistory, which explains its very contingent origins, I realize that they are onto something already that took me years to find out: works of history, like historical events, often happen for unexpected and unpredictable reasons.
As I had expected, both students and their teachers pay close attention to the mechanics of writing at university level. Full-time members of the program staff direct two sections each—a task that involves not only course meetings, but also close reading and correction of drafts and multiple meetings with each student. Students learn to kill their darling phrases, to build arguments on solid evidentiary foundations, to develop an argument in a coherent way. Some of the eventual products turn out to be works that would receive an A grade at any level of undergraduate history; one, based on primary sources in a European language, went on to win a much-deserved prize.
Both in the course on early modern witchcraft and in a second one that I visit, on gender in modern science and medicine, I'm also impressed more generally by the quality of attention paid to language. Like all good writing courses, these require students to spend a lot of time reading, both as they prepare for class and, often, when confronted as a group with documents or with one another's work. They learn to identify the unconscious assumptions and prejudices, as well as the explicit statements, which they encounter in primary and secondary sources. Even if none of the students in the course on gender goes on to take another course in the history of science, they have all been exposed to a disciplined way of raising questions—one that applies, as the course shows, to reading and writing texts that range from early modern treatises on anatomy through modern scholarly work on midwifery to the contemporary media (at the end of the semester, students were asked to write an op-ed piece on why women are unrepresented in the sciences—a great way to suggest some of the ways in which scholarship can enter the public realm). In both of the classes that I visit, the instructors are clearly in charge and move the students through a carefully constructed series of exercises—one that includes brief lectures, discussions by the whole group, and short breaks for reading texts and small group discussion. I'm impressed by the frankness with which the instructors reveal their plans for the hour and a half to come, something I have never dared to do for fear that I might somehow lose the magic by doing so (I will change my ways in future). I enjoy watching the historian of science use a nicely judged combination of warmth, personal attention, and sharply formulated questions to wake up a few who are drifting into spring fever, keep the discussion on track and end with the students knowing exactly what they need to.
It all seems well judged, useful: good pedagogy for the students and, I hope, good experience for the historians who teach them. At a meeting with several of the historians in the program, they rapidly make clear that they believe in the value of this enterprise. They like being able to devise courses that speak to their own interests, to show students the sort of work that they do—but they also like the program's general pedagogy and see the tools with which it provides them and their students as sharp and useful.
Unlike some of the more senior colleagues elsewhere, these young scholars still believe that expository writing of the traditional kind matters. In her recent How Professors Think, the Harvard sociologist Michele Lamont noted that historians seemed to have a greater degree of consensus than scholars in many other fields when it came to judging candidates for fellowships and their projects. A commitment to well-built arguments and readable prose is one of the foundations of this consensus, and I hope that many historians at every level, from senior professors like me to recent PhDs and doctoral students, still share it.
Yet questions arise—questions relevant not only to this program but to many of the other similar ones, across the country, that employ early career historians. A period of teaching in a capacity like this has become more and more common in historians' careers, as it has in that of their colleagues in other fields of the humanities and social sciences. These young scholars are employed, and they have time to develop their research and writing while waiting for the right tenure-track job to appear. But they are also doing work that would once have fallen to the university's line faculty, and doing it on the edge of campus rather than in the center.
In joining this program, they have moved—as a number of them remark—outside mainline history. More than one mentions having had to convince a search chair or committee that he or she is really a historian. This is genuinely worrying—not only because good writing is a core part of good history, but more generally, because it should be understood that with the market as it is, early career historians have to support themselves in a vast range of ways. Finding an academic niche outside history proper should be seen as evidence of a historian's versatility and ingenuity. The AHA tries hard to publicize the ways in which the profession is changing: evidently we still need to do more.
Finally, I can't help regretting the separation between this sort of general education and the work of our history departments. It's terrific to see students master these skills in their first year. But somehow, by the time they major in history, many of them will need, at the least, a refresher. As they move toward writing the senior thesis that we require of every student here at Princeton, some reveal that they don't know what we mean when we talk of primary sources, or have a clear sense of how to construct an argument, or know that they need not just a reason for writing, but a thesis in the other sense—an argument to put forward. Something—a lot, in fact—seems to get lost between the first year and the third. It's great to see these gifted historians at work on my campus. But it's wrong that many of them never establish a real connection with my department. I hope we can build some solid intellectual and pedagogical bridges in the years to come.
Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA.